My speech from the dock
An Irishman’s Diary about Robert Emmet and public speaking
‘For a fleeting moment, I thought about making a run for it. But then I felt the ghost of Robert Emmet at my side. Or maybe it was the physical presence of Philip Emmet, a living descendant (via Robert’s brother Thomas) who was there to lay the wreath.’ Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
On Culture Night, I had to give a talk at St Catherine’s Church in Dublin. And as usual, half an hour beforehand, I was in a panic: ironing a shirt with one hand while still jotting down notes with the other. Also as usual, I was rueing acceptance of the invitation. Never again, I lied to the pale reflection looking back at me from the mirror.
During the short walk to Thomas Street, I was tempted – again, it’s a standard emotion prior to public speaking engagements – to liken myself to a condemned man. Except that, here, the comparison was in bad taste. This is because the reason for my talk (Culture Night being only a coincidence) was the anniversary of Robert Emmet’s execution, for which St Catherine’s had been the backdrop.
The Emmet Society marks the date every year by laying a wreath at the spot and then repairing inside the church where a guest speaks on a historical theme. It doesn’t have to be about Emmet, I was told. In fact, something different from the usual would be welcome.
So I had opted to discuss an event from the generation after Emmet: the infamous Wild Goose Lodge massacre of 1816. And in truth, I was quite confident about the choice. It was a dramatic, if grim, story. It was also a subject with which I was very familiar – having grown up near the site – whereas the audience wouldn’t be. Besides, I had fortified myself with Terence Dooley’s excellent 2007 book on the subject.
All told, I had less reason than usual to worry about a speech. On the contrary, as I passed Guinness’s Brewery, I was beginning to feel almost relaxed. Mentally rehearsing the tale, I could imagine my audience spellbound at the climax, the deepening silence of the old church broken only a standing ovation at the end.
Then I arrived at St Catherine’s and, as if it had been an effect of inhalations from the brewery, all confidence suddenly deserted me.
First I learned that I wouldn’t be speaking in the church, after all. Due to some bureaucratic misunderstanding, the church was unavailable. Instead the entire event, including my talk, would now happen outside, at what was – among other things – one of the noisiest traffic junctions in Dublin.
Already a local theatre company, presenting scenes from their show The Robert Emmet Experience, was struggling to be heard over the cacophony. Then, as I waited my turn, shuffling notes and fretting, a car-full of gougers turned the corner into the Liberties and one passenger wound down the window to shout encouragement. “Sad bastards!” he quipped, cheerfully.
My heart was sinking, fast. It sank further when I heard myself introduced on the mobile PA system. The loudspeaker would have been more than adequate for the church’s interior, but it was overwhelmed by the traffic. And that was before – naturally – a shop alarm across the street chose this moment to go off. Oh God, I thought.
I remembered it was Culture Night and that there were a hundred things more interesting than me happening within five minutes’ walk. Whatever chances I had of holding the audience’s attention indoors (maybe we could have locked the church), there was none here. I imagined delivering the climax of my talk to an empty footpath. Or worse, to the car-full of gougers, returning to critique my performance.
For a fleeting moment, I thought about making a run for it. But then I felt the ghost of Robert Emmet at my side. Or maybe it was the physical presence of Philip Emmet, a living descendant (via Robert’s brother Thomas) who was there to lay the wreath.
Either way, I recalled that, although the famous speech of 1803 was made in a courthouse, it too had to compete with interruptions – mostly from that notorious gouger, chief justice Norbury. Despite which, the condemned man’s words had been heard around the world, inspiring Abraham Lincoln and countless others.
And of course, the struggle to make himself heard was only the beginning of Emmet’s ordeal. At least I knew I’d be going home afterwards. So, shamed to courage, I abandoned my notes, urged the audience closer, and delivered my talk off the cuff.
It’s a tribute to the fortitude of Emmet admirers that they were all still there at the end. Or if any of them sneaked off early, at least they were gratifyingly discreet about it. And I don’t know about the listeners, but after a few minutes I no longer noticed the background noise. Indeed it was only after the talk I realised the shop alarm had at some point stopped, although I’m not for a moment suggesting it was my eloquence that silenced it.